1851 150 Years Ago

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On June 2, Gov. John Hubbard of Maine signed an act prohibiting the sale, manufacture, or “keeping for sale” of alcoholic beverages anywhere in the state. The law’s enactment culminated two decades of tireless campaigning by Neal Dow, the mayor of Portland, and James Appleton, the author of a lurid and influential 1837 report on the effects of drinking. Five years earlier, they had persuaded the legislature to pass a first attempt at prohibition, but it was ridden with loopholes and had little enforcement machinery and weak penalties. The 1851 act was much tougher, though drink sellers still found myriad evasions, legal and illegal.

In the early days of the temperance movement, its advocates had shunned politics in favor of “moral suasion,” but the success in Maine led to a change in tactics. Within four years, a dozen more states had adopted Maine-style laws, with others banning taverns or allowing localities to do so. In the opposite of the pattern that would prevail in the next century, prohibition found its strongest support in the North and was rejected in the South. The reason was simple: As industrialization spread, Northerners worried about alcohol’s effects on the laboring classes, many of whom were immigrants. The South, by contrast, had little industry, few immigrants, and its own peculiar institution for keeping laborers under control. Many Southerners saw prohibition as an example of Yankee decadence, especially since most active prohibitionists—including Dow and Appleton—were also fervent abolitionists.

The movement suffered a sharp setback in 1855, when Dow’s violent suppression of a pro-drink rally in Portland brought unwelcome publicity. In other states, legislatures repealed their acts or courts threw them out. At the same time, the sectional crisis grew to overshadow temperance as a cause for reformers. By the Civil War, only Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut still had prohibition laws on the books.